Robert Altman Essay - Critical Essays

Altman, Robert (Vol. 116)

Introduction

Robert Altman 1925–2006

American filmmaker.

The following entry presents an overview of Altman's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.

Robert Altman enjoyed both critical acclaim and commercial success with his film M∗A∗S∗H in 1970, but he is known more for his cult following than for his box office smashes. His signature techniques, including multiple voices, meandering plots, and obscure themes, have garnered him critical acclaim for his innovation, but have prevented him from gaining overwhelming popular success.

Biographical Information

Altman was born February 20, 1925, in Kansas City, Missouri, to German immigrant parents. He attended several schools in the Kansas City area, including Wentworth Military Academy, before entering the Air Force to become a co-pilot of B-24 bombers. In the 1940s and 1950s Altman wrote several B-movie screenplays in Los Angeles and then returned to Kansas City to direct documentaries. In the late 1950s Altman tried his luck in Hollywood once again, this time in television. For the rest of the 1950s and much of the 1960s, Altman wrote, produced, or directed episodes of popular shows such as Bonanza, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and U. S. Marshall. His first feature film was Countdown (1968), but he was not allowed final editing decisions on the film. Although many consider Countdown a fine science fiction film, Altman disavows the movie and has insisted on complete artistic control of his subsequent projects. Altman was chosen to direct his breakthrough feature, M∗A∗S∗H (1970) after several (according to some reports, as many as fifteen) directors turned the project down. After M∗A∗S∗H, Altman made a series of offbeat films that received mixed critical reception and were by no means commercial successes. Altman's Nashville (1975) brought the auteur back into Hollywood's good graces for a time, garnering Altman the New York Film Critics Circle awards for best film and best director, as well as multiple Academy Award nominations. Altman experienced a third resurgence in 1992 with The Player, another commerical and critical success for which Altman was again nominated for multiple Academy Awards.

Major Works

M∗A∗S∗H is an anti-war film centered on a group of zany army doctors who, though compassionate and skilled surgeons, survive the war through alcohol and humor. Set during the Korean War but released during the Vietnam War, the black comedy contains many of the elements typical of Altman's other films, including improvised lines and scenes, overlapping dialogue and sound effects, light and irreverent humor, no standard plot, and a moving camera which records from a distance. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is a western and love story that subverts many of the conventions of each. In The Long Goodbye (1973), based on the Raymond Chandler novel, Altman tackles the detective genre and one of its mythical heroes, the detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is out of place in his 1970s surroundings, enabling Altman to make a social commentary on the times. Nashville (1975) analyzes the nature of power and opportunism. The story revolves around a cast of 24 characters, mostly singers, aspiring stars, and politicians in the capital of country music. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976) criticizes commercialism, opportunism, and the making of a celebrity. The title itself sets up a dialectic between two versions of history, and the film makes it difficult to discern historical fiction and historical reality. Vincent and Theo (1990) is Altman's only biographical film. Altman takes the unusual approach of making Vincent Van Gogh's art peripheral to the main plot. Instead, the film traces Van Gogh's relationship with his brother Theo and the pain he suffered in his life. The Player (1992) is a satiric look at the Hollywood studio system and the role writers play in the system. Short Cuts (1993) is another sweeping film with multiple plot lines and a large cast of characters. The film is based on slice-of-life stories by Raymond Carver. Ready to Wear (1994) follows another multitude of characters, this time through the fashion world. The film analyzes many topics, including the nature of womanhood, relationships in American society, and the human condition.

Critical Reception

Much disagreement surrounds the critical discussions of many of Altman's films. M∗A∗S∗H was Altman's breakout film, becoming both a critical and popular success. Many of the techniques which made M∗A∗S∗H popular, however, left critics and audiences uneasy in his subsequent films. Many reviewers criticize Altman's use of sound and overlapping dialogue; others assert that the technique lends a sense of reality to his films. Altman's The Long Goodbye created a storm of criticism, but several reviewers attribute this to Altman's alteration of the end of the Raymond Chandler novel, which made Marlowe devotees uncomfortable. Nashville was another critical and popular success for Altman, but his style still drew complaints. Some critics felt that despite Altman's finesse in juggling multiple story lines, Nashville's separate plots lacked substance individually. Most reviewers agree that plot is not the central element in Altman's work. Jonathan Baumbach asserted that "Altman generates tension in his film not through plot, which seems to exist as an afterthought …, but through movement and image." Despite individual criticisms of some of his techniques, many reviewers appreciate Altman's unique and innovative style. While he has failed to achieve consistent box office success, many critics and fans describe him as one of the best directors of his generation. Todd Boyd asserts that, "Altman remains one of the few independent voices in a sea of repetitive Hollywood mediocrity."

Principal Works

The Delinquents [writer and director] (screenplay) 1955
The James Dean Story [writer and director] (documentary) 1957
Nightmare in Chicago [director] (film) 1967
Countdown [director] (documentary) 1968
That Cold Day in the Park [director] (film) 1969
M∗A∗S∗H [director; adapted from the novel by Richard Hooker] (screenplay) 1970
Brewster McCloud [writer and director] (screenplay) 1970
McCabe and Mrs. Miller [with Brian McKay; writer and director] (screenplay) 1971
Images [writer and director] (screenplay) 1972
The Long Goodbye [director; adapted from the novel by Raymond Chandler] (screenplay)...

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Criticism

Jonathan Baumbach (review date 1974)

SOURCE: "Show-Offs," in Partisan Review, Vol. XLI, No. 2, 1974, pp. 273-74.

[In the following mixed review, Baumbach complains that, "what's finally wrong with The Long Goodbye is that for all its artistic pretensions, all of them, the film is not quite serious, not serious enough to carry the freight of its pretensions."]

Seeing movies, writing about them is a more subjective business than the authoritative voice of most reviews admits. One runs into a good deal of self-deception and cant among reviewers who try to make the fleeting reality on the screen seem unequivocal. There is so much fantasy invested in moviegoing that movie reviews tend to tell us...

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Michael Dempsey (essay date September-October 1974)

SOURCE: "Altman: The Empty Staircase and the Chinese Princess," in Film Comment, Vol. 10, No. 5, September-October, 1974, pp. 10-17.

[In the following essay, Dempsey discusses pivotal scenes in Altman's Thieves Like Us and McCabe and Mrs. Miller which cause the films to fall short of greatness.]

Two moments in Robert Altman's movies may hold the key to their true nature. In one, the conclusion of Thieves Like Us, travellers in a railroad station climb a staircase to a train. The film goes into slow motion, and Father Coughlin gives a populist speech on the sound track. Finally, the people disappear, leaving only the stairs. In the other, an episode...

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Todd McCarthy (review date 1975)

SOURCE: "The Delinquents (Robert Altman) (1974)," in Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System, edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn, E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1975, pp. 215-19.

[In the following review, McCarthy states that, "Decidedly a minor work by a major artist," The Delinquents proves that Altman can tell a straightforward story without stylistic mannerisms.]

A reasonable number of people must be aware that Robert Altman directed films before M∗A∗S∗H, but most would probably be hard pressed to come up with many titles. Some may have seen That Cold Day in the Park and a few watchful airplane passengers and...

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William S. Pechter (essay date September 1975)

SOURCE: "Trashville," in Commentary, Vol. 60, No. 3, September, 1975, pp. 72-5.

[In the following essay, which was reprinted in Movie Plus One, Horizon Press, 1982, Pechter traces Altman's portrayal of America in Nashville.]

Why make a film about—and full of—country music, if you don't like it? I ask this not as any devotee of country music myself, well over nine-tenths of what I've heard of it striking me as a pile of lachrymose slop. But any film crammed with some 25 country-music original numbers ought, statistically, to hit on one that's better than pathetic. Even a nonentity like W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings (whose principal characters are...

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Aaron Sultanik (essay date December 1975)

SOURCE: "A Merging of Mythologies," in Midstream, Vol. XXI, No. 10, December. 1975, pp. 56-9.

[In the following excerpt, Sultanik compares the view of America presented by Altman in Nashville to that presented by E. L. Doctorow in Ragtime.]

It comes as no surprise, amidst the festivities kicking off the celebration of our bicentennial, that our cultural gurus have focused on two works of art as the definitive summing-up of the way we were and what we are about today.

Though most important books and movies are appreciated only by highbrows and aesthetes who perceive motifs that forever remain obscure to the big public, E. L. Doctorow's...

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William S. Pechter (essay date October 1976)

SOURCE: "Altman,Chabrol, and Ray," in Commentary, Vol. 62, No. 4, October, 1976, pp. 75-8.

[In the following excerpt, which was reprinted as "Buffalo Bob and an Indian," in Movie Plus One, Horizon Press, 1982, Pechter discusses the ways in which Airman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson is similar to his McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and he enumerates the ways in which the former film falls short of the latter.]

There's a sense in which, had Robert Altman's new film been better, I probably would have liked it less. Nashville was "better": it dumped a truckload of city-slicker's scorn for "down-home" America at our...

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Roger Greenspun (essay date July-August 1977)

SOURCE: "Floating," in Film Comment, Vol. 13, No. 4, July-August, 1977, pp. 55-7.

[In the following essay, Greenspun asserts that, "3 Women ranks with the best Altman, though it has the pretensions of some of the worst—Brewster McCloud, Images—and it divides, as just about everyone has noticed, between a wonderful first half and a highly problematic second."]

Quite by accident, the day I last saw 3 Women I also screened John Ford's 7 Women and the recent Looking Up. For the neatness of this introduction, and for lots of other reasons, I could have wished my third film had been, say, Four Daughters, or at least Two Gals...

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W. S. Di Piero (essay date Summer 1978)

SOURCE: "Wish and Power: Recent Altman," in Chicago Review, Vol. 30, No. 1, Summer, 1978, pp. 34-51.

[In the following essay, Di Piero discusses Altman's Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, and 3 Women, and asserts that, "His career may prove eventually to be the most cogent, and tenacious, of any America director."]

Public controversy contaminates perceptions, and sudden notoriety often smudges the profile of a newly famous thing. In the past several years Robert Altman, a latecomer in American filmmaking, has become the most conspicuous victim of public misperception. Although his films have inspired lively...

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Gene M. Bernstein (essay date Summer 1979)

SOURCE: "Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson: A Self-Portrait in Celluloid," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 13, No. 1, Summer, 1979, pp. 17-25.

[In the following essay, Bernstein analyzes how Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson examines the film medium itself including the genre of the western and the making of a superstar.]

In the last decade there has been a proliferation of films which are reflexive; that is which examine the medium in terms of film making itself or the impact of film on society. Some do it directly, like Francois Truffaut's Day for Night, while...

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Robert Altman with Frank Beaver (interview date Winter 1983)

SOURCE: "An Interview with Robert Altman," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 44-55.

[In the following interview, Altman discusses the course of his career and his critical reputation.]

In the Fall of 1982, film director Robert Altman visited the University of Michigan as Howard R. Marsh Professor of Journalism in the Department of Communication. He gave seminars on filmmaking, participated in workshops, and directed a stage production of Igor Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress for the School of Music. Frank Beaver, Professor of Communication at the University of Michigan, interviewed Altman for MQR.

...

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Robert Merrill (essay date Summer 1990)

SOURCE: "Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller as a Classic Western," in New Orleans Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 79-86.

[In the following essay, Merrill analyzes Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller as a classic western, instead of its typical depiction as an anti-western.]

My title must seem an oddity, for Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller is almost always taken to be an "anti-western," that is, a film largely devoted to severe satire, even parody, of the classical westerns. Viewed in this fashion, McCabe and Mrs. Miller will almost inevitably seem a minor, somewhat quirky example of what other filmmakers were doing in the late...

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Richard K. Ferncase (essay date Fall 1991)

SOURCE: "Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye: Marlowe in the Me Decade," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 25, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 87-90.

[In the following essay, Ferncase discusses Altman's retelling of the story of Philip Marlowe in his The Long Goodbye.]

In the popular culture, few artifacts are guarded with the kind of reverence that is commonly reserved for old movies. Defenders of Hollywood's silver screen legacy are frequently vociferous over perceived indignities to which the films are submitted. A figure no less than Martin Scorsese has raged over the fugitive dyes in Eastmancolor prints (which reduced hundreds of 1950s films to faded ghosts of their...

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John C. Tibbetts (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Robert Altman: After 35 Years, Still the 'Action Painter' of American Cinema," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1992, pp. 36-42.

[In the following essay, Tibbetts discusses Altman's relationship to Kansas City, the course of his career, and his films through Vincent and Theo.]

"They used to lock me up for getting into trouble in this town," quipped filmmaker Robert Altman as he accepted the Key to Kansas City from Mayor Richard Berkeley. "They used to throw away the key. Now, they're giving me one!"

Altman lived in his native Kansas City, MO, for his first nineteen years. As a boy he raised quite a ruckus, as he puts it;...

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Robert Altman and Tess Gallagher with Robert Stewart (interview date July 1993)

SOURCE: "Reimagining Raymond Carver on Film: A Talk with Robert Altman and Tess Gallagher," in The New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1993, pp. 3, 41-2.

[In the following interview, which took place in July, 1993, Altman and Gallagher discuss the adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories in Altman's film Short Cuts.]

Raymond Carver, who died all too early—at 50—of lung cancer in 1988, left a remarkable legacy of 11 volumes of short stories and poems, among them Where I'm Calling From, Cathedral, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and Where Water Comes Together With Other Water. It is a body of work...

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Richard P. Sugg (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "The Role of the Writer in The Player: Novel and Film," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1994, pp. 11-5.

[In the following essay, Sugg traces the role of the writer in Altman's The Player as compared to his role in the novel of the same name.]

Though the novel The Player was written first, the film precedes the novel in most of the audience's consciousness, for few who see the film will have read the novel. So let's consider how the writer is presented in the film, and how our understanding of these changes from novel to film helps us see more clearly Robert Altman's ultimate purposes and their achievement in the film. Three...

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Jonathan Romney (essay date March 1994)

SOURCE: "In the Time of Earthquakes," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 4, No. 3, March, 1994, pp. 8-11.

[In the following essay, Romney discusses the daredevil nature of Altman's career, including his approach to Short Cuts.]

The last word spoken in Robert Altman's film Short Cuts is "lemonade". We hear it as the camera tracks out over a briefly shaken Los Angeles, as two partying couples toast to survival in the face of a minor apocalypse. As so often happens with Altman, who is famous for his habit of scrambling soundtracks to the limit of comprehensibility, the word is audible but not entirely noticeable, certainly not impressing itself on you as central to the...

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Michael Wood (review date 10 March 1994)

SOURCE: "Why the Birthday Party Didn't Happen," in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 5, March 10, 1994, p. 19.

[In the following review, Wood shows how the stories Altman presents in Short Cuts differ from the Raymond Carver stories on which the film is based.]

Robert Altman's Short Cuts is a long, loose-looking movie, but the looseness is an effect, carefully worked for. Plenty of themes recur throughout—insecurity, chance, rage, damage, the long, bruising war between men and women—and although there are fourteen or fifteen stories here (based on, extrapolated from ten stories by Raymond Carver—the handouts and the introduction solemnly say nine...

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Tom Shone (review date 11 March 1994)

SOURCE: "A Fishy Lot, Mankind," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4745, March 11, 1994, p. 21.

[In the following review, Shone discusses the relationship between Raymond Carver's short stories and Altman's adaptation of them in his film Short Cuts, and asserts that "the union of writer and director is occasionally rocky, may in some cases have needed a little more guidance, but it has a weathered solidity."]

There is a moment in the first half-hour of Short Cuts, Robert Altman's adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories, when a man on a fishing trip with his buddies, having set up camp by a river, flips down the hinged shades of his glasses with a...

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Kathleen Murphy (essay date March-April 1994)

SOURCE: "A Lion's Gate: The Cinema According to Robert Altman," in Film Comment, Vol. 30, No. 2, March-April, 1994, pp. 20-1, 24, 26, 28.

[In the following essay, Murphy discusses some prevailing images from Altman's films.]

In Provence, Vincent Van Gogh centers his easel in a field of glorious sunflowers. Robert Altman's camera darts about frantically, catching closeups of golden novas and overviews of entire restless constellations. Neither the director nor the painter can settle on framespace; like some sorcerer's apprentice, nature has generated a vertiginous profusion of forms, each potentially unique flower a momentary stop in a grid of pulsing yellow light....

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Robert Hilferty (review date Summer 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Ready to Wear (Prêt-à-Porter), in Film Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4, Summer, 1995, pp. 35-8.

[In the following review, Hilferty states that, "Less about fab fabric than the tenuous fabric of society, Ready to Wear is an elaborate striptease of the human condition."]

First, the facts.

Robert Altman's new film is not a "behind-the-scenes" look at the fashion world. Nor is it a particularly fashionable treatment of that world. Nor is it a conventional narrative complete with audience-identification protagonist and tidy plot. Nor is it much like Nashville, despite its many characters and multiple vignettes....

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Todd Boyd (review date December 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Kansas City, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 6, No. 12, December, 1996, pp. 49-50.

[In the following excerpt, Boyd calls Altman's Kansas City "aimless film-making."]

"Kansas City here I come!" These are the words of Big Joe Turner's classic rhythm and blues song 'Going to Kansas City', and it's also the mission of film-making elder statesman Robert Altman in this homage to his hometown. Set in a colourful 30s world, in which the city is an oasis for the political party bosses, gangsters and jazz musicians who ran the show, Kansas City is trademark Altman, a series of interconnected episodes all linked to one central theme: the uses and...

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Richard Combs (review date March-April 1997)

SOURCE: "Kansas City, Kansas City, Kansas City, Kansas City," in Film Comment, Vol. 33, No. 2, March-April, 1997, pp. 68, 70-1.

[In the following review, Combs discusses the lack of personal references in Altman's films, noting the exception of Kansas City, which is set in Altman's home town.]

In his biography of Robert Altman, Jumping Off the Cliff. Patrick McGilligan charts some lost territory in the Altman story—lost in the sense that there are whole areas of the director's life that haven't shown up in his work. Altman was born in Kansas City. Missouri, in 1925, of German immigrant stock. The family name was originally Altmann, the loss of the...

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